Wild Profile: Meet the Canada jay

Published: February 9, 2021

A Canada jay (grey jay) perched on a twig in winter By Mircea Costina/Shutterstock

What’s the difference between the Canada jay and the grey jay? Nothing, of course. It’s the same bird. But ever since 2018, the clever, curious avian has been officially called “Canada jay”; it was the American Ornithological Society—the organization responsible for the classification and naming of birds in North America—that made the decision.

Winter is an important season for these plump little birds. Canada jays begin building their nests as early as mid-month. Strange, because February, and well into March, is a lean, inhospitable time for most Canadian creatures. These jays are prepared, however. From June to fall they gather and hoard foodstuffs, enough to sustain them all winter.

Why are they so efficient at stocking the pantry? Canada jays have enlarged saliva glands. They spit-soak their meals—bugs, seeds, berries, mushrooms—then glue them to conifer trees, usually in bark crevices or hidden under bits of lichen. According to research, the birds’ memories are strong enough to recall nearly every single hiding spot within a one-square-kilometre territory.

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When nesting season hits, it’s the male who chooses the nursery site and begins to build it. He’ll gather twigs and bind them into a loose ball using caterpillar cocoon thread. At this point, his mate pitches in, adding a ring of sticks to the top of the ball and filling in the gaps with bark and lichen. Then the pair uses feathers and fur to line the nest, moulding it into a cup shape—about two inches deep—by squishing their bodies inside.

A Canada jay brood is usually only three eggs, and the youngsters grow to become intensely competitive with one another. Often, this culminates in one bird driving its brothers or sisters away from home. Sometimes the jays that have been cast out survive solo, but often they don’t. Sibling rivalry? Never good.

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